Since 1902

How and when to use punctuation marks

The Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University of Science and Technology will confer an honorary degree on Raila Odinga in December. That, as the justification goes, is because of his exemplary work. Thereafter, his admirers will be more than happy, when referring to him, to prefix his name with the abbreviation for Doctor (Dr).

The question arises, should the abbreviation 'Dr' be followed by a period (full stop) or not? Our discussion today is about punctuation marks, namely, the period, comma, semi colon, colon, exclamation mark, quotation mark, hyphen, parenthesis, question mark and the apostrophe. In the British version of the English language, abbreviations for titles like Doctor (Dr), Mister (Mr), Missus (Mrs) or Messrs (Ms) are not followed by a period. Hence, to write 'Dr. Raila Odinga' would violate this rule. However, American English does not have such restrictions. Ordinarily, periods mark the end of a sentence. A sentence is defined as a group of words that express a complete thought; words which must contain a subject (noun or pronoun) and a predicate (verb).

While a word is defined as a group of letters that form a meaning in any language, there are words (without a subject and predicate) that express a complete thought. Thus, after such single words, a period is applied. These include; ‘Goodbye’. ‘Run’. ‘Stop’. ‘Go’, 'Come'. Where figures are concerned, the distinction between say, shillings and cents as in Sh45.50, is underscored by a period.

Diplomatic corps

The comma has a wider range of uses and helps in giving more clarity. While the omission of a period results in a rambling sentence, the omission of a comma results in ambiguity. Commas are used in separating phrases, words or clauses. Phrases are groups of two or more words that do not necessarily form sentences. For example; “The president met members of the diplomatic corps, had talks, and later treated them to a sumptuous meal.”

Where a number of nouns are to be employed in constructing a sentence, commas come after each noun. For example; “At the graduation party, graduands were spoiled for choice; Chicken, beef, fillet, drinks and cakes.” Commas also separate adjectives, verbs and phrases.At times commas are used to enclose details that, while part of a sentence, can be classified as non-essential, merely supporting an argument, hence can be removed without affecting the sentence.

For example; ‘China, one of the biggest economies globally, has the biggest population on earth’. Removing the words ‘one of the biggest economies globally’ does not change the primary fact contained in the sentence.

Examples where the comma separates adjectives and verbs include; ‘‘Martha is young, kind, intelligent and beautiful’’. “Baby Ian ran towards his mother, fell, shouted, and groaned’’. Examples in which commas separate phrases include: ‘The bus hit the guard rail, lost control, rolled down the valley and burst into flames’’.

Reported question

The comma is also used in distinguishing partial phrases. For example: “On hearing her mother was hospitalised, Jemimah left the office immediately”. Also, with tag questions, we use commas. For example, “The President left for China, didn’t he?”

Cases have been observed where writers either omit a question mark at the end of a direct question or include a question mark at the end of a reported question. Examples of direct questions are; what is your name? Do you have the requirements with you? Did you manage to get the loan? Examples of reported questions are; “He asked me about my parents” or “he wanted to know whether I was actually up to the task”.

A question mark can appear within a sentence, particularly if the style of writing is conversational. For example; “There is cause for alarm (isn’t there?), when children as young as nine years resort to committing suicide after disagreements with their parents’’.

The exclamation mark serves to show surprise, exasperation or astonishment at something or for emphasis as in ‘Get out of my sight!” In expressing surprise, we use words like ‘‘What an incredible thing!” For expressing exasperation, one is likely to use words like “I hate you!” At times, an exclamation can be used to express sarcasm when an individual does something considered silly. For example; “Oh, that was quite clever of you”.

When expanding on a statement, the correct punctuation to use is a colon. For example, ‘‘John has one fault: his ego’’. Semi colons join phrases without using conjunctions. For example, “I like your son; he is disciplined”. When quoting verbatim what someone else said, enclose the words in quotation marks. Rephrasing them overrides quotation marks.

Mr Chagema is a correspondent at [email protected]